Belgrave St Ives - Modern & Contemporary Art

John Hopwood

John Hopwood (1942-2015)

John Hopwood studied at the Berkshire College of Art, since when he practised the art of painting intensively and without interruption, exhibiting widely (in Berkshire and Oxfordshire where he previously lived, and in London) at galleries including: Crane Kalman, London; Crane Arts, London; Piccadilly Gallery, London; Woodstock Gallery, London; Mercury Gallery, London; Royal Academy of Arts (Summer Shows); Reading Museum & Art Gallery (works purchased for collection); Century Galleries, Oxfordshire; Julius Gottlieb Gallery, Oxfordshire; Pentonville Gallery, London; Penwith Gallery, St Ives; New Millennium Gallery, St Ives.

He lived and worked in St Ives (where he moved with his wife Annie, from Berkshire) until his unexpected death in 2015. His last major show prior to this new exhibition at Belgrave St Ives was at the Millennium Gallery, St Ives in 2008. His works are in numerous private collections in Britain and abroad.


John Hopwood, New Millennium Gallery, St Ives, 2008 - Catalogue Essay:

Visiting John during the build up to his exhibition I was struck that although there were numerous differences in this group of paintings - changes in mood, changes in colour palette, and differences in atmosphere - it became clear during our time together looking at the paintings and talking about them that John's philosophy regarding his art and his life has not changed. Like most thoughtful people, artists or otherwise, I believe John uses his art as a way of finding meaning in his life and this searching is an ongoing process.

His paintings have been described as meditations in that one senses the trance like state that John must enter to produce such meticulous and exacting work. If they were only meditations for their maker this would not be enough because clearly the strength that has gone into them gives us the viewer the inroad to the possibility of using them as meditations for ourselves. This is not some new age empty feeling but as real and tangible as something more objective. The emotion could possibly be described as spiritual if that term were not so loaded; or perhaps the paintings are acting as a catalyst for finding some stillness within ourselves.

Experiencing John's paintings help me understand the importance of simplicity in my own life and the need to exclude the superfluities, which tend to obscure my vision of reality. It isn't about the denial of everything in life that is enjoyable and fun, it is more about the rejection of those things that will get in the way of experiencing that which is more meaningful. John seems to live by this ethos and certainly seems to understand the importance of leaving out what is unimportant in his work. The way he lives his life and the way he works seem to be in total union: he does not drive and own a car; he only travels to experience other cultures and because of his love of music and the arts. He leads a simple, thoughtful and reflective life and it is this way of living that feeds him and helps create that calm that leads to such profound work.

John says his paintings are all about 'Light' 'I am trying to give the painting a life giving light, he says, a light that is reassuring and gives joy. A sense of meaning about what you are seeing and feeling. It is no wonder that the less dogmatic will use the word light to replace the word god. In this way one can experience the significance of the light without the connotations of religion but still the intention and the power evoked is tangible. As we grow older and a little wiser we are much more likely to recognize that light within ourselves and perhaps also to see that light in others. John however seems to have the ability to share that light, not in some fervent zealous way but quietly and reflectively through his paintings.

John came across the phrase 'memory transformed by time' when embarking on this series of paintings and feels it sums up what he is doing. He often has an idea of something he wants to achieve in a painting and will hold onto it until some event happens which acts as the channel and then he knows what he has to do. Very often it may be a trip to a European capital, a museum, a concert, reading a book that excites him or simply a walk by the sea. 'I start with a title followed by a drawing because I know what I am trying to express. I am not starting with a blank canvas and trying to tease something out of it, I have got to impose my feeling onto the canvases.He may see something in nature either on his travels or more locally in St.Ives, a flock of seabirds, rocks, trees, flowers. Sometimes he may make the drawing immediately but mostly he will allow the memory to change with time so they seem to 'spring out of fragments of memory'. Perhaps because he is clear about his end result, he then creates and manipulates the work almost as though it is being staged like a performance. The artists he admires greatly (although his work does not resemble them) are artists like Geoff Wall, Gwen John and Morandi. Wall is a photographer who leaves nothing to chance in his need to communicate his message; within still life and portraiture, Gwen John and Morandi seemed to understand totally what they wanted to achieve by the subject matter they used. John even mentions the great classical painter Poussin with the complex mythical and religious subjects.

Although we have said the work is about light, John also acknowledges that he is not trying to ignore the darker side either of himself or of those experiencing the paintings. It is about accepting opposites such as death and beauty which can lead to greater fulfilment in life. So for me the paintings' language is of balance and harmony with an extra dimension, which is more difficult to quantify. We live in a time when to describe art in terms of its beauty seems on some level to denigrate it and yet in its purest sense is difficult to achieve. It is like the love between two people. At its best it can be the perfect union and oneness which is fulfilling and positive. At worst, indifferent and destructive. James Kirwan the philosopher in his book 'Beauty' sums it up: 'a yearning without object: a pleasure, pervasive and intense, combining desire, delight, resignation and regret.' This definition seems to imply a contradiction but meaning and understanding flow from the ambiguity and the paintings seem to epitomise that. As I indicated at the beginning, one can appreciate John's work for its sense of balance and use of colour but it is the otherness which ultimately makes them special and gives them their longevity which is all-important as we change throughout our lives.

David Falconer, Director, New Millennium Gallery, 2008


John Hopwood - A Personal Note:

It was during a walk in North Wiltshire (not many miles from the artist's birthplace) on Boxing Day 1973, that I first heard the name of John Hopwood. A younger man who admired his work told me that I should look out for it.

There was not long to wait. On 3 May of the following year, in going round the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, I found myself in front of No.46 - not only by, but of that very artist - his Self Portrait in White (see image at top of page). I returned two days later and bought the painting. John kindly offered to deliver at the close of the exhibition, and so we met.

In late November of the same year, he invited me to his cottage at Wytham Village, near Oxford, where that picture had been painted in 1970, and showed me work done both earlier and later.

There followed visits to the cottage (and garden) to which he later moved in Hare Hatch in Berkshire, and a greater familiarity with and delight in his achievements.Fully conversant with the contemporary scene, and having an acute perception of masters of the past, John has pursued his vocation in the tranquility of his own homes. Not for him the lure of instant acclaim or celebrity. rather, he has been content to take the hand extended him by the Muse, and allowed himself to be guided by her towards the full maturity which is his today.

Colin Clark, 2005.


John Hopwood, New Millennium Gallery, St Ives, 2005 - Catalogue Essay:

This is John Hopwood's first major show since arriving in St.Ives. Having achieved considerable success as a figurative still-life artist in London, he gave up painting in this genre and moved to Cornwall. Although he had started the process of moving his work towards abstraction before settling in Cornwall, the greatest part of the change came about because of his new relationship with the sea.

He acknowledges that living in St.Ives and being enveloped by the sea has been an extraordinary experience for him. Now he lives with his wife in a fisherman's cottage in the heart of downalong, contrasting greatly with the home he had in the Buckinghamshire countryside where he was surrounded by dense trees and woods. He now realizes that he was claustrophobic, unable to see the endless land and sea that now so excites him. When John painted figuratively he felt tied to the way things are, the colour, the objects, the subject. For example, he never painted a person without that person being there. All his work was carried out in the studio within four walls. Now he feels those confining walls have been knocked down and there is infinite space. This has given him a great sense of freedom. Everything in his life has the potential to become a memory to be stored and ultimately used as his inspiration. He immerses himself into his surroundings and the minutiae of detail, acutely aware of light and juxtapositions of forms, sifting all this information and transposing it down into the painting. He will look endlessly at the sea and the whiteness of the surf and try and find a way of expressing it without it being a literal interpretation.

It is clear that John's early painting had a strong autobiographical element. Whoever or whatever he was painting, something of his own character and narrative appeared in the work. Now it is as though his new environment has enabled him to leave his past behind. The work is cohesive and clearly made by one person but its message is more 'universal' and hopefully more open to the viewer's interpretation. The early work recorded John's feelings about the objects and people he painted. Now he hopes it is more 'life affirming' giving the viewer a sense of 'tranquility or energy'.

John is very excited by the progress he has made. He says that the most thrilling thing about being a painter is that 'you are allowed to grow and develop'. He wants the impact of the work to have great simplicity but when it is viewed longer and closer, the complexity will be recognized. He believes it is like looking at a rainbow. One sees the beauty instantly but one would have to have time to recognize its intricacies, time which nature often does not allow. John therefore watches rainbows at every opportunity; he is stunned by the impact they have on him. He constantly makes lists notating the changes from one colour to the next hoping to make sense of a natural phenomenon. A painting in the exhibition called 'Sky' which on first glance has the look of the decorator's colour chart with the gradations of colour emanating from bottom of the painting to the top. However, it very soon becomes apparent that this is a highly complex painting which seems almost as though it has a mathematical formula attached to its process. John sees it as a form of intuitive mathematics with an equation so complex his conscious mind is unable to work out the formula.

John finds the creative process a deeply profound experience. It starts, he says, with his enthusiasm and a deep response to the visual. Filled with excitement, he then tries to express what he is seeing and feeling. He feels a heightened awareness of emotions and this is transferred into the work. He hopes that if the viewer connects with this raw feeling they will feel something of that emotion too. This seems to be in direct contrast to his earlier work that concentrated on fragments of the past, a static memory that insists on being remembered. For me the recent work has a sense of endlessness where anything is possible and therefore they seem full of hope.

For John painting is a form of meditation and that means that he has to paint every stroke and make every mark himself. He talks of artists who will create a moquette and then allow studio assistants to take over. Although he is not critical of this decision, for him it would be impossible. The thought of anyone else being part of the process seems to fill him with horror. Putting on the paint himself enables him to have endless possibilities, varying according to the needs of the painting. I believe this process contributes to the amazing feeling of balance and order in the work. John acknowledges that this is an important aspect in his life as well as his work. This is very apparent in his cottage where every object seems strategically placed, nothing looks as though it doesn't belong. He says this order is partly linked to his love of nature and the changing seasons, the reliability of those changes providing much inspiration.

John has been developing a vocabulary of signs and shapes to meet the needs of his artistic language. The series started with paintings which had only one type of mark; now there are many. He also has a broad colour range which he simply puts down to being 'open to experience' and using the colours I need for the piece. He never worries about how they relate to other pieces but later he finds that they do. He says that it is like his own life. He would never limit where he went or what he looked at or the variety of friends he has for he sees that as putting blocks on himself which will only hamper creativity.

The finished paintings seem to be a feast for the senses. Obviously the visual, but for me there is a real connection with taste. They certainly have an edible quality that good art can so often evoke. John hopes also that they connect with hearing and he uses the term 'silent music' in that they are often inspired by music and hopes that that comes through when they are finally on view. This is brave and challenging work. It would perhaps have been much easier if he had continued to produce representational work. However, John feels it would have been more difficult to carry on as he was. He believes that he was becoming the artist people wanted him to be rather than the artist he actually is. More and more he was only totally himself artistically in secret and that was a state he could no longer tolerate. One could almost say that this show has become a celebration of an artist's battle to stay true to himself.

David Falconer, Director, New Millennium Gallery, 2005